There are times when something happens – and it can take only a moment – that changes your life forever. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve seen it with others. Seven years before this movie was made, Troy Hurtubise, a Canadian outdoorsman, had an encounter with a grizzly bear. It’s impossible to know exactly what happened as Troy is such a chatterbox, poseur, and possibly flat-out liar, but he freely admits that he literally crapped in his pants. The griz let him live.
But it festered in his mind. He sets out to make a grizzly-proof suit out of junk from his scrap metal business. Seven years, six models, and $150,000 later, he’s ready to test the Mark VI. It is a portrait of obsession. Each model looks more ridiculous than the one before. He allows himself to by hit by trucks, huge logs, baseball bats. He can talk scientific talk, but basically he just lets people whomp on him. He is unhurt. Now it’s time to find the griz that scared the shit out of him and show the “Old Man” who is tougher. He wraps the project in high-toned talk about what a valuable tool this suit will be for studying Ursus horribilis in its natural habitat … but this is demonstrably bullshit. Plenty of people have studied these bears. There’s even another film out there about a guy who liked to fancy he was “living with” the bears, like Jane Goodall with chimps and Dian Fossey with gorillas. He succeeded so well that he managed to capture his own screams on tape as he was slowly eaten alive by one.
Even more telling … the suit weighs 340 pounds. He can barely waddle when he has it on. If he falls over, he can’t roll over or sit up, much less stand again. He can’t even get it off at all by himself! It needs a team of two just to tuck him into it and get him out. So they take the suit out into the bush, where they quickly discover what I could have told them: The suit is totally useless unless he’s on perfectly flat ground. They have to carry it in on three horses, and by the time they get there they’re so tired they just abandon it on a mountainside. (I have a suggestion. Go to Churchill, Manitoba. The ground around town is real flat, and there are thousands of polar bears, which are easy to find and aggressive and even larger than grizzlies. Smear yourself with seal grease and let ‘em have at you.)
SPOILER … but not much of one. He never tangles with a bear. At the end of the film they spot a griz in the distance. They head home to work on the Mark VII.
I have two bear-proof suits myself, and I’ve had them for years. I wear them in different circumstances. The first is blue jeans and a shirt. This one has worked flawlessly, so long as I don’t go into the woods. Works damn well against alligators, lions, tigers, and sharks, too, so long as I don’t go into the woods or the ocean. The second suit is called a “pickup truck.” (Okay, I don’t actually own one, but I can buy one at any car lot in America if I feel the need to go into the woods, for a lot less than $150,000.) What’s that? You say a pickup doesn’t provide much mobility for following griz along woodsy paths? … well, neither does the Mark VI. In fact, the Mark VI’s mobility approaches zero.
We’ve seen several of these … what I call geek movies lately. They’re like the sideshow at the circus, where you used to go see the freaks and geeks. “My god, is he really going to bite the head off that chicken …? Oh, yuck!” There was the likeable and determined but talentless moviemaker Mark Borchardt in American Movie. Then there was the horrible egotist and backstabber Troy Duffy in Overnight. Both were good movies, and this one has its moments, too. But all the while I’m feeling a little uncomfortable at this sort of reality cinema that records not triumphs, but failures. And it becomes so painfully clear that Hurtubise’s real quest is not to study bears but to somehow feel safe again inside his ridiculous cocoon. But failure is part of life, right? And most of us are obsessed about something. Sometimes that something is ridiculous, but at least it keeps us busy, and maybe it helps keep the bears away …